Parachute School – Day #1

20 May

Fort Benning, Georgia

“Looks hotter than hell, don’t it, what’er you all Yankee boys doing here? Lookin’ for a little fun?” He was a jovial sun wrinkled guy. Together, we looked out at the endless carpet of red dirt, which was not much different from all the other dirt we’d lived in over the past year. “Now, this is real country, God’s country. I was born here.” As expected, the Georgia Redneck killer and I became good friends, still are. Maybe his good old boy manner was a put-on.

The ancient rail car, now collapsed on a siding, was starting to simmer. Brakes squealed and complained and iron couplers slammed. Outside, from what we could see, was a vast sizzling, undulating nothing. “God’s country” he noted, with a proud grin. “You study your history …this is the kind of land that God was brung up in.” Who dared doubt it?

We’d heard that most of us wouldn’t survive the first “hell week” of airborne school, much less go the whole course. Two weeks before, we had listened to that slick paratrooper recruiter for an hour; we’d looked at his boots, pack and parachute … his what? And we listened to his encouraging words. Some of us were special; we could be the best of the best, he said. Anybody interested in becoming a real man could stay in the assembly hall and he’d answer questions, like ‘how much you get paid.’ There’s cold lemonade in the big tub for those who stay. ‘Why?’ was a good question. Camp Van Dorn was a relatively comfortable piece of perdition, once you got the hang of it and a few stripes and passes to N’Orleans.

Only a special few of us would qualify – he said but I don’t recall anyone who did not qualify, at least for a look-see at Ft. Benning, and for the Parachute School people to look at us and make instant judgements. “We know by looking at ’em. We see their attitude first thing.” So an instructor told me after graduation. “Mainly, there are two kinds who come through the jump program. They are the telephone poles and the fire plugs. The skinny ones kind of splat on the ground when they hit, and the compact tough guys just hit like a brick and don’t bounce. It’s usually the poster boys who break something.”

Anyone who had spent a spring time in the swampy reaches of Mississippi and Louisiana could handle anything, we knew that … and most of us made it. Those who didn’t graduate were either injured or had attitude problems. Good men were frustrated by their own self-doubts; that takes nothing of quality from them. They broke down over things you could not believe. Being afraid of heights didn’t bother most of us.

Us … was fifteen or twenty people from the first battalion of the 2SSth Regiment of the 63rd Infantry Division, stationed in Camp Van Darn, Mississippi. Together with men from other regiments and other places, we filled a ratty train car … and rumbled out of the swamps late at night … sat up wondering for the entire trip. We staggered off two days later, looking less like soldiers, than our barracks bags did.

The overfed MP soldier, who was our car conductor, puffed himself up and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are heah and you will disembark from both ends of this heah car and line up double time for a speech from the welcoming committee. The temperature is 120 in the shade and there’s no shade and that’s normal for this time of the year.” He had slept and smoked in a private seat, and read comic books through the whole trip.

We formed up, sweating, dirty, smelly, wondering why … and knowing why. Out of nowhere, there he was, Emperor Caesar Augustus with his Praetorian Guard. He hand vaulted onto the platform in one smooth move. Easily nine feet tall, two axe handles wide, cool, clean, calm, knife creased, looking at and seeing right through each of us. Two officers sat on folding chairs behind him, looking stern. They served no purpose that we could see. He disregarded them.

His unexpected first words …”Good morning, gentlemen,” and “be at ease. It’s my privilege to welcome you to this station.” It was an invitation, not a command. He did not say, “Can everyone see me?” Everyone did. He did not say, “can everyone hear me?” He knew it … though I remember his voice as flat, monotone, level and penetrating like a scalpel. He was not rough, gruff and tough like John Wayne. He did not smile; maybe he saw things in our futures that we could not yet see. Maybe he was out of Hollywood. We never saw him again.

“This compound is called the gridiron and the frying pan among others. You will hate it. You will run three or five miles on it each morning before you begin your physical training. I advise that you do not complain openly or quietly … and one day you may tell your grandchildren about the ordeals of Parachute School.”

He apologized for keeping us standing, then gave us some realities. “You are civilians who have put on the uniform of your country. That tells me you have faith in this crusade, and you are ready and willing to bet your life on it. You have learned to be infantry soldiers, not air force or artillery, or armored. If you’ve come from any other service, forget it. You are not yet airborne soldiers. You will learn the hard differences; you will earn your wings. They don’t come as a gift. Simply being here does not count. What you do when you leave here …. is what counts.”

Many of you have had good solid training, we know the signs … and we will build on that. Some of you have stripes and bars. You were told to remove them and if you did not, you will do so before the next assembly. There are only two ranks here, airborne candidate and instructor. At the end of six weeks your rank will be restored, which brings me to the second point.

About a quarter of you will not be here when this class graduates. That is historically true. This class may be the exception, but probably not. Some of you will be injured. Some will become ill. Some will fail to meet the emotional or physical requirements and some will simply choose to return to the comfort of their former assignments. We can’t guarantee that.

We don’t “drop out” here. We choose. When I’m finished with this welcoming talk, anyone who wishes to return to his former outfit will simply pick up his gear and walk back to the train. There is no shame in that choice. No dishonor, not now, or at any time in the next six weeks. History also tells us that no one will get back on that train, at this time.” And he was right.

“Before you meet your instructors I offer this advice. Do not ever address the instructor unless recognized. Do not speak to any other candidate during class or drill. Do not question what we do here. Do not refuse to obey any order, instantly. What you like, or do not like carries little weight. None in fact. If your instructor says you do not fit, you will leave quietly. There will be no negotiations. Do not attempt to use your rank. You have none. Do not leave the base for any reason until graduation day. Or you will leave it permanently. There will be no exceptions to that rule.

Rules of behavior and appearance? Be aware of them, call them what you will. If you accumulate violations, you are gone. Last week, a Captain spat in the sawdust of a drill area. He is gone because he refused to pick it up. Another one lit a cigarette; he took his time ditching the butt. He is gone. You will be clean, clear eyed and sharp. You will stand tall unless otherwise instructed. Anything less will be noted. You will carry our high standards. Don’t you dare let us down.”

Give this next week every bit of strength and endurance you have and you will prove to yourself … whatever it is that brought you here. Each of us has different reasons for choosing this service: to do great things, to find adventure, which you will; to make a few extra dollars … there are easier ways. Maybe to impress the girls back home. And a few of you are running away from something, or from yourselves. Most of you are here because your country called and you heard. That’s the best reason. Whatever your personal reason, I hope this experience works for you.

You will learn to respect and trust the man on your right and your left. You will not fail each other. You will learn to respect the enemy who may have more experience, tricks and skills than you. You will learn to use every known weapon, and handle every known vehicle .., to operate as a unit, to follow orders, to use your own initiative, to make the right decisions and to take command if you must. If you think you see contradictions there, combat will prove what I say.

At the end of the course, you will go home for two weeks. Some of you will go on to specialized training. As pathfinders, demolitions experts, airborne artillery and yes, officers. All of you who complete the course will be assigned to now-active parachute regiments. They need you on the job, like they say, to hit the ground running. Your job will be to deprive the enemy of his territory, his resources, his will to resist … or to deprive him of his life. You have those objectives and one more. To stay alive. Stay alive. Dead, you serve no purpose, you become a burden.

Now, for the letdown. “Most of you have come out of the infantry, and you will return to the infantry … with boots, wings and a lot more confidence and pride in yourself, your assigned unit and your friends. You will be taller, stronger, quicker, smarter … and you will still be infantry … boots on the ground, just like the spear carriers of the last 10,000 thousand years.

 

The major difference is in how you will be transported to Where you are needed You will be trained for air assault by parachute. However, air delivery of combat soldiers is costly and uncertain. Losses are necessarily high. We take measured risks, we are not wild men, suicidal or expendable. If there is a more effective way to deliver you to the battleground or into enemy territory, you will take that.

That includes trucks, by school bus or railroad. By landing craft, if necessary. Most often, you will hike until your heels wear down, you will run faster and farther than you can imagine; you will crawl and climb, carrying equipment that would cripple an ordinary man. You will carry your own pack, dig your own holes in the ground and carry your injured or wounded buddy. Once delivered, you will advance on the enemy; avenues of withdrawal will probably not be open. You may have a long walk home.

As a paratrooper, altogether you will spend less than fifteen minutes at the bottom end of a parachute. On the ground, by the grace of God and gravity, you will be the best infantry soldier in the world.

Before your instructors take you to your barracks … “get down and give me twenty five pushups … now! A first class lunch awaits you. God bless you all

I don’t remember much else about that day, beyond wonder and doubt … but I witnessed the spirit of the airborne. In the next fifty plus years, I met him again and again … older, slower, wiser perhaps, but yes, that same can-do spirit; not somebody you’d want to mess with. He had that look, you know, the one that could take you down.

I’ve tried to reconstruct that first day. All paratroopers know what followed. If I were to pick one man who most looks, sounds and acts the part of that man on the platform, part good uncle and part demon – that would be Al Fox, former President of our 511th PIR Association. Al- that wasn’t you, was it? Regarding the physical training, there’s a day by day schedule of what we did. On the Internet try Google. I do not believe I did that whole thing.

On the subject of food: we got an airdrop of pork chops which somebody cooked in a helmet and It was pretty good until an hour later when most of us got the runs. And since we were on top of a ridge, there was no place to run. Most of us got over it in a few days but some of us got a dose of paratyphoid which I understand has nothing to do with pork chops. Paratyphoid makes you lose your hair, everywhere and I mean everywhere, yes, there too. Not pleasant.

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